Grammar Learning as Cooperative Social Action

Grammar Learning as Cooperative Social Action

By: Harumi Kimura

People learn languages primarily through social interaction with others in a particular language community. When learning first languages, people find patterns while interacting with significant others and adapt their verbal and non-verbal behaviors to their social environment. Although the same is true for the learning of additional languages, people in the so-called expanding circle (Kachru, 1992), like Japanese and Koreans, usually learn their L2s in formal, educational settings, where linguistic patterns are explicitly taught and intentionally learned in classrooms.

In this article, I share a rule-learning activity revised by a student in a final course assignment. The original activity is listed in a book titled 60 Kinesthetic Grammar Activities (Savage & Ward, 2020). The authors argue that, although physical activities for language learning, as embodied by Total Physical Response (TPR), have been mostly restricted to young learners and somewhat marginalized, language learning should go physical for all learners, since language use is “inextricably integrated into physical and social environment” (p. x).

The original activity was designed to teach/learn (a) countable and uncountable nouns and (b) the relevant quantifiers such as few and little (in Savage & Ward’s No. 58. Nouns with quantifiers, pp. 60–61). After reviewing the general rules concerning (a) and (b), the teacher draws three boxes on the board, each of which is labeled as singular, plural, and noncount respectively. She tells her students that she has something in her refrigerator. She invites a volunteer and asks her to draw the food item(s) in the appropriate box. For example, when the teacher says she has some apples, the volunteer student is supposed to draw some apples in the box labeled plural.

After some training sessions, the teacher invites a volunteer student to take her place and call up another student to draw. Other students take turns afterward. The pictures above and below show my pre-service teacher students actually doing this activity as learners.

By the way, can you make out what is in each box? In the singular box on the left, there is a (head of) cabbage and a piece of fancy cake. One volunteer student, Ai, is drawing a hamburger in the box in Picture 1. There are some French fries, grapes, two eggs, and three peaches in the plural box in the middle. In the noncount box on the right, there is sugar kept in a jar and cooked rice served in a bowl. Another student, Yuan is drawing cheese in the box in Picture 2. Isn’t it fun? All these words are listed in a vocabulary booklet for elementary 5th and 6th graders in Japan.

The activity can be broadly defined as a “listen-and-draw” activity, where students practice listening comprehension while demonstrating knowledge of different kinds of nouns and their appropriate quantifiers. It involves physical movements since the volunteer student walks up to the board and draws the food item(s). There are some other advantages to this activity. Students need to attend to aural input to draw the item(s). They are not tested on spelling in identifying and classifying the item(s). The activity is well designed to achieve the learning goals.

However, the activity does not seem to be “real” in terms of representing the way we use language in real life. We do not usually draw food items kept in the refrigerator. It’s a pedagogical task, not a target task. Pedagogical tasks are just fine, but if we can relate, at least to some extent, what we do in class to what we do in real life, we will be able to provide a better learning opportunity. In addition, there are two major drawbacks with this activity. First, while one volunteer student is drawing the item(s) on the board, all the other students are just watching her draw. They are not engaged in language learning. During the drawing time, which can be rather long in some cases, only one student is active. It would be better for more students to be visibly active. Second, student-to-student interaction is minimum since there is no meaning-focused negotiation between students. Students might interact, but they will just talk about noun types and the use of quantifiers. Although talking about grammar is a meaningful interaction, it is not what we normally do in our daily life. How can more students be active at the same time? How can we bring about meaning-based interaction? The key is, I believe, students’ social and affective engagement.

Yuan, in Picture 2, came up with an activity which promotes creativity and involves cooperative competition; thus, it is socially and affectively oriented. The title of the activity is “Let’s make original fancy cakes.” Students are to make an imaginary fancy cake with toppings such as fruit and sauce: a fancy cake of their own.

    1. Students learn expressions for the quantity and amount of food items: one egg, two eggs, some eggs, a few eggs, and few eggs. on the one hand; and milk, some milk, a little milk, and little milk, on the other. It is a good idea to make use of flash cards or drawings of different types of food. The examples should include food articles such as some blueberries and a little chocolate sauce students can use for toppings.
    2. Students, in groups of four, discuss what toppings they would like to use to make their original fancy cake. They need to use at least four toppings so that each student in a group can contribute one food item such as fruit and sauce to the final product.
    3. Each group draws their fancy cake on a piece of paper and put it on the board to share with other groups.
    4. Members of the group take turns to say each of the toppings for the whole class.
    5. Individual students vote for the cake they like best and the class decides on the best fancy cake of the day.

This activity has many advantages over the original version. It involves negotiation instead of just interaction and represents a more realistic type of interaction. It has more people speaking at once. And finally, it is more social than the one in the book in that it involves group discussion. Group members cooperate in making their original fancy cake with their favorite toppings, using their knowledge of noun countability and quantifiers. A shared goal like this creates interdependence among the members (Jacobs & Kimura, 2023). The sense that we are doing this together produces opportunities for mutual support and affective involvement (Tomasello, 2009). They have somebody else to work with and thus their need to belong is satisfied (Baumeister, 2012).

"… the scope to develop their imagination …"
Harumi Kimura
TT Author

The revised activity is a good example of how we can take traditional language-focused activities and transform them into more social, and emotionally valid ones. Yuan said that she tried to imagine how her students would work on this activity together in groups. Did they have enough information to work on their own? When would they need guidance? I believe it is our job as teacher trainers to offer to future teachers the scope to develop their imagination and vision.


  • Baumeister, R. F. (2012). Need-to-belong theory. In P. A. M. Van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of Theories of Social Psychology (pp. 121–140). Sage.

  • Jacobs, G. M., & Kimura, H. (2023). Cooperative learning and teaching (2nd ed.). TESOL.

  • Kachru, B. B. (1992). World Englishes: Approaches, issues and resources. Language Teaching, 25(1), 1–14.          

  • Savage, A., & Ward, C. (2020). 60 kinesthetic grammar activities. Alphabet Publishing.

  • Tomasello, M. (2009). Why we cooperate. The MIT Press.

Harumi Kimura (EdD.) is a professor at Miyagi Gakuin Women’s University. She studied L2 listening anxiety in her doctoral study, and her academic interests include second language acquisition, learner development, learner psychology, multilingualism, and cooperative learning. She thinks that her mission is “to make learning another language less intimidating and a bit more rewarding plus fun.”

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